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Entering 2020, my company, a video marketing firm, announced major changes to our HR systems, processes, and calendar. The team wanted our HR operating system to be more predictable and align better with our overall operating system. This meant introducing a semi-annual performance review cycle, moving everyone onto one fall compensation review cycle, and spreading out other HR activities to better support the business cycle.

We told employees what to expect: a new career and growth framework, an overhaul of how we ran compensation reviews and, lastly, to expect the format of performance reviews to largely remain the same.

Then the pandemic hit the U.S. While we still needed to get to the same end state with our HR system, it was clear our plan needed to change to adapt to both being fully remote, and seeing a rise in stress and anxiety amongst our team. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 45% of employees feel emotionally drained from their work as a result of the impact of COVID-19. At Wistia, we knew many people were struggling to adapt to new challenges. As our summer review cycle approached, we found ourselves asking, How are we going to handle reviews during all of this? We ultimately ran our review cycle in July of 2020, as scheduled, but heavily adjusted the process and expanded its timeline to several weeks.

Our normal review cycle involves a self-review, manager review, peer feedback and, for our managers, feedback from their direct reports. The conversations in the review are designed to be focused on individuals’ growth and development.

In a typical year, it’s a heavy lift, organizationally. In 2020, we weren’t sure employees would have the emotional energy to give and receive feedback, or how helpful the usual process would be.

How we changed our review process

We started asking broad questions, like, Should we skip reviews altogether? With some of our team thriving in the circumstances, it felt unfair to drop a valuable growth-oriented feedback loop. What about postponing reviews? This would push performance reviews up against our compensation review cycle, an overlap we were intentionally trying to avoid. Should we run the normal review cycle? Well, no. A significant chunk of our team didn’t have the bandwidth or energy to invest in a full cycle.

Therefore, we leaned into Wistia’s value of simplicity to build a leaner process that was able to better meet our team where they were.

  1. Put employees in the driver seat. Everyone had the opportunity to decide how they would receive (or skip) their performance review. Those wanting feedback had an opportunity to get it. Those without the bandwidth or energy to invest in the process had the opportunity to opt out. Additionally, we knew some employees may be interested in certain questions, but not have the emotional energy for discussions about their long-term growth. We revisited the review template and made it a simple answer-and-respond format, meaning managers would only respond with feedback to the questions an employee opted into by answering.
  2. Decrease organizational lift of reviews. Peer reviews require a large time investment across the company. We knew we couldn’t ask that with everything going on and employees operating at different levels. Additionally, we didn’t want to force sensitive conversation among peers. Choosing not to answer a question on your own self review is much easier to manage than declining a request for feedback from a peer you respect. Removing the peer review was the only way we could drive towards simplicity.
  3. Adjusting for impacts on managers. Once we felt good about the overall review process, we needed to make adjustments for our management team. All were navigating their own unique circumstances and stressors outside of work, while trying to lead and support their teams. It was important to try to accommodate their needs, as well. We decided to decrease the number of questions on the review to lessen the scope of what they’d need to respond to. We also extended the timeline for completing reviews for managers with more than five direct reports to balance getting employees’ timely feedback to ensure people weren’t overloaded.

What we learned

With 115-plus employees, only 18 people opted out of reviews. Many others skipped questions that weren’t helpful to them in the moment. We received positive feedback from the team and knew there were elements that may be helpful to incorporate going forward.

While the circumstances this year will hopefully not be as extreme as 2020, there’s an element of meeting employees where they are that will always be valuable. We’re exploring ways to tweak our process to better allow employees to focus on areas most important to them without bypassing parts of the conversation managers think are important to have. We’re also working on ways to reduce the organizational lift without losing the peer feedback that is so impactful in painting a fuller picture of a person’s contribution.

Reevaluating our review process was a reminder that we need to make sure HR processes support the overall business operating system, while also providing value to the full teams’ growth. We evolved and pivoted in 2020, but doing what’s best for our employees has always been at the forefront of our organizational decision making.

Jane Jaxon is the vice president of people at Wistia, a video marketing company, where people can bring their full selves to work.